Throughout her compelling memoir, Susan Faludi is searching for her elusive father, a former New York City photographer who disappeared from her life when Faludi was still a child. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author documents her efforts to reconnect with her father and peel back the layers of illusion behind which he had been hiding for decades. In doing so, Faludi asks a universal question. Can we ever really know our fathers?
In a memoir that reads like a page-turning mystery, In the Darkroom traces Faludi’s repeated visits to Budapest, where her father has changed his nationality, his name and his gender. At 76, following sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, Mr. Faludi is now Miss Stefánie Faludi, obsessed with a form of 1950s helpless femininity that entitles her to be treated “like a real lady.” This is especially perplexing for Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
Faludi arrives in Budapest in 2004 with more questions than answers. Why did her father, a Jewish Hungarian Holocaust survivor, return to the country that had exterminated over half a million Jews, including members of his own family? Why was Stefánie so eager to be accepted as a “true Hungarian” and not be recognized as a Jew? How could she be blind to Hungary’s current fascist leanings and persecution of the LGBT community? And, at what point in his life, did Mr. Faludi realize he really wasn’t a man?
The darkroom of the title is literal and metaphoric. Stefánie, who is constantly flashing her breasts and asking Faludi for fashion tips, has more secrets and disguises than a KGB agent. Although Stefánie is out of the closet when it comes to her hair, clothes and makeup, in other aspects of her life, the doors are still slammed shut and resistant to the author’s efforts to pry them open. For every mask Faludi manages to pull back, another lies beneath.
As the pieces slowly come together, Faludi views her father’s entire life as a disappearing act, out of both necessity and habit. Raised in a wealthy Jewish family that viewed themselves as more Hungarian than Jewish, the former István Friedman was ignored by his beautiful mother and generally rejected by his father. As a teenager in the Nazi occupation of Hungary, he refused to wear the required yellow star identifying himself as a Jew. Instead, when convenient, he put on a Nazi armband, giving himself greater freedom of mobility and, as it turned out, the ability to save his parents from certain death.
After World War II, István changed his last name to Faludi, “. . . a good authentic Hungarian name.” Arriving in the United States in 1953, he changed his first name to Steve. However, István Friedman’s transformation into Steve Faludi is a fairly common story among Holocaust survivors seeking to quickly assimilate into American life. What is more perplexing was his decision, to become a woman more than 50 years later. Faludi initially receives this news in the form of an email.
“Dear Susan, I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man I have never been inside.”
Faludi’s childhood memories of growing up in Yorktown Heights, in Westchester County, N.Y., are shrouded in confusion, fear and pain. The father she remembers had been controlling, as well as physically and emotionally abusive. He banged her head against the floor when she expressed interest in visiting a church. After separating from her mother, Mr. Faludi returned one night and violently attacked his wife’s boyfriend with a baseball bat. Faludi remembers the screaming, the blood and the police. When she asks her father about the horrific event, Stefánie blithely says, “I was protecting my home from an intruder.”